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Monday, January 19, 2009

Say it ain't so Mikhail

While leafing through the Sunday Styles section of the NY Times yesterday I opened to the middle page and saw a Louis Vuitton ad featuring a familiar-looking man in the back seat of a limo next to one of their pieces of luggage. When I looked closer I saw the unmistakable wine-colored birthmark on his forehead. My first reaction was, it can't be. But it was.

What on earth was Mikhail Gorbachev doing in a Louis Vuitton ad? Isn't it a bit beneath the dignity of the last General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to be advertising an overpriced tote bag? This was the last leader of our chief adversary in the Cold War, the man who introduced glasnost and perestroika, the man who oversaw the dissolution of the Soviet Union. (For these and other reasons he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990.)

Richard Nixon once said of Gorbachev that he was the single most impressive world leader he had ever met. Nixon said that no matter where a conversation led, no matter how many tangential subjects might be brought up, Gorbachev would always gently but firmly steer the talks back in the direction they had started, the direction he wanted them to go. He said he had never once seen Gorbachev lose his train of thought, no matter the situation.

Yet here he was, posing like just another empty-headed anorexic Wilhemina model.

It was a little like seeing Fidel Castro doing ads for Morgan Stanley. Or Jimmy Carter with his arm around a bikini babe touting the benefits of Brut cologne. Except that Gorbachev was far more important than either of them. Maybe it was closer to seeing Joseph Stalin spring back to life to tell us that things go better with Coke.

I wondered if he had fallen on such hard times that he was reduced to pimping duffel bags. Then I looked at the fine print below. In very tiny type it said, "Mikhail Gorbachev and Louis Vuitton are proud to support Green Cross International." (Green Cross is an environmental organization founded by Gorbachev in 1993.) I'm guessing it was the Vuitton ad agency art director, and not Gorbachev, who chose the size of that type.

My next thought was, exactly whom is Louis Vuitton trying to appeal to with that ad? Designers use beautiful young models whom most consumers want to look like. Pharmaceutical companies which cure erectile dysfunction use particularly rugged-looking men in their ads because they don't want the men who use their products to feel insecure about their masculinity. Beer companies use humorous men because they want to remind their consumers what a good time can be had while under the influence.

So which demographic was Gorbachev supposed to appeal to? He's neither young nor good-looking. And he's far too intelligent to be pretentious, which is what people who want expensive luggage usually are.

Then it hit me. Aha! They're trying to appeal to that all important former-dictators-of-Evil-Empires demographic. ("After I replaced Andrei Gromyko with Eduard Shevardnadze as Foreign Minister, I would never have dreamed of traveling to my summit with President Reagan in Reykjavik without my Louis Vuitton luggage. And neither should you.")

It's too bad Reagan isn't still alive, they could have done a joint commercial. ("Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall. You know, with the axe you keep inside that beautiful Louis Vuitton bag.")

I guess Gorbachev agreed to be in the ad in exchange for a contribution to Green Cross. But it still doesn't sit right. Twenty-four hours later, my head's still spinning.

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